Politics is a quirky affair. It calls for strange bedfellows at the same time leads to bedfellows becoming strange. The referendum conducted by the initially jubilant, later disgruntled former Prime Minister David Cameron threw Britain into the global economic gauntlet where it seems to be struggling to save its tattered loins. The referendum was the result of Cameron’s hubris emboldened by the Scottish independence referendum wherein the loss of the Union was averted not by the nationalist rhetoric of the Tories but the political acumen of the Labour party. The last minute lifting done by the latter resulted in the continuation of the union but at the cost of it losing a large chunk of traditional progressive votes and political space in Scotland. However, the referendum marked the end of a ‘disjunctive’ Prime Minister who, according to Byrne and Randall “struggled to establish a clear policy vision”.
The burden of a failed political gamble fell on Theresa May, who despite her bold theatrics in Parliament seems to have a very tough time negotiating a ‘fair exit’. An allegorical case of the current state of affairs would be that of a resident of a forest inhabited by both wild animals and exotic fruits, choosing to opt only for fruits without encountering the animals. May has been unequivocal in her pronouncement for a bespoken deal which has the potential of setting a very bad precedent for the naysayers in the continent. Perhaps in a fit of ecstasy, May said that “give us a fair deal or you will be crushed”. She is trying to get the best of both worlds, i.e. access to the single European market of 450 million consumers and bask in the glory of political ‘sovereignty’ which according to the Tories, has been popularly salvaged by Brexit.
May and her economic advisors are aware that Britain does not have India anymore, a colony which Lord Salisbury referred to as “an English Barrack in the Oriental seas from which we may draw any number of troops without paying them” and strong industrial foundation on which an edifice of post-Brexit Britain could be erected. The trajectory of British capitalism suggests that the fortunes of its economy are linked to finance capital which is territorially organized around the city of London. As Tony Norfield has written in his book ‘The City: London and the Global Power of Finance’, the mechanism through which British capitalists leverage their power across the world is finance capital. He further writes “In 2013, Britain had the second largest stock of foreign direct investments, worth $ 1, 885 billion…the UK was second in place behind the US, with 34 companies having a total market value of $ 2, 085 billion”.
Britain risks the relocation of these companies to other prominent cities in Europe if access to a single European market is denied by EU. Writing in similar spirit, Mark Boleat, policy chairman for the City of London Corporation has said “…American investment banks do business authorised, capitalised, and managed in London. If they could not continue to do so then they would have to shift some business to the EU”.
Camouflaging the interests of the city of London as the ‘national interest’, May is trying to win popular support for her proposals. In her speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos she said ‘that globalization and the forces of free trade have harnessed wealth and opportunities across the world’. Making unjustified insinuations she further said that “Forces of far left and far right are playing politics of fear and despair…politics of mainstream needs to ensure they take care of genuine needs of the people”.
Even during the Conservative Party’s annual conference May had said that “there is more to life than individualism and self-interest” a repudiation of Thatcher’s dictum that ‘there is nothing beyond family’. This was followed by promises to lift the British working class from their distresses and passing remarks critical of the big fish. Ironically, all the progressive dicta has now been substituted by open support to tighter control on immigration thereby acquiescing to the demands of Farage & Co. Her recent insistence on capital mobility as against the mobility of labour speaks of her more as a far-right leader than what she would rightly concede to be.
Furthermore her claims that, “We are leaving the EU but not leaving Europe” bears an uncanny resemblance to the audacity displayed by Winston Churchill in the aftermath of World War II wherein he advocated a United States of Europe – but excluding Britain. He had said, “We are with Europe but not of it…we are linked but not comprised”. Such doublespeak is the hallmark of Conservative politicians steeped in far-right proclivities.
But there is a marked contextual difference in the two statements made at different times. Churchill’s statement clearly suggested an ambitious statesman eager to see imperialist Britain as the ‘third super power’ besides US and USSR, a dream nipped in the bud by the Suez Crisis whereas May’s statement comes at a time of an impending financial crisis in the form of losing access to the single European market and geo-political bickering with the US on a host of questions; Libya stands out as a cardinal case in this regard.
By not conceding the limitations imposed on her by capitalist competition and financial accumulation May seems to forget Randy Pausch’s cautionary words that ‘no matter how bad things are, you can always make things worse’. Her principle warning, which is, to turn Britain into a tax haven, as a retaliatory measure clearly shows that she has no more options left on the table that would assuage the capitalists and the working class, whom she claims to represent. Such a stance has not gone down well with other bigger states of Europe especially France and Germany. They are wary of the fact that May’s behaviour would allow for a spillover effect and embolden the eurosceptics in poll bound nations. Sharing the collective burden of the refugees, a job unilaterally taken up by Germany albeit in a commercial spirit, would also receive a blow if May is allowed to get her way in Europe.
It will be an arduous task for Theresa May to come out of the conundrum as most of it is the creation of her colleagues in the party. Her dash for a favourable Brexit has to be unanimously ratified by 27 countries of the Union. Until then it will be a battle of nerves, against the leftward lurching populist Jeremy Corbyn at home and globalists abroad.
The writer is a Research Scholar in the Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi.